Kellerman’s character, Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, and Gary Mitchell, the ship’s helmsman, acquire psychic powers when the Enterprise hits a mysterious force field in deep space. Mitchell, Captain Kirk’s close friend, gradually transforms into a god-like being who increasingly shows contempt for his crew mates, whom he now regards as weak creatures who only get in his way. Worse, Dr. Dehner begins a similar transformation.
It’s one of the original series’ best stories. The theme of how power corrupts was explored further in other Star Trek episodes. In “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Kirk & Co. confront humans who have acquired powerful telekinetic abilities. Their powers have turned them into sadistic bullies. At the story’s end, the chastised leader of the superhumans admits, “Uncontrolled, power will turn even saints into savages, and we can all be counted upon to live down to our lowest impulses.”
In “Patterns of Power,” the Enterprise finds a planet that’s transformed into Nazi Germany, complete with SS uniforms and calls for a “final solution” against its enemies. Turns out a Federation observer, determined to speed up progress on the planet, had introduced the population to National Socialism, thinking he could curb the movement’s nastier tendencies. But as Dr. McCoy observes, “A man who holds that much power, even with the best intentions, just can’t resist the urge to play God.”
Sounds like a timely message to me. In a confused and frightening time when both political parties threaten to bypass traditional constraints to get what they want, these old episodes have something to say.
The latest Rebel Wisdom features a thought-provoking interview with writer Damien Walter. Science fiction, says Walter, can replace “society’s central source of meaning,” which has traditionally been religion. As Walter puts it: “Science fiction is essentially the attempt of science… to create a mythos for itself. Because science damaged the previous mythos, the Christian mythos, for most of Western society.”
It’s a fascinating idea, one that every writer can relate to. I believe literature is inherently spiritual, exploring and ruminating on our connections to others and the universe. Anyone who wrestles their thoughts onto paper has a view of the world they yearn to share. Science alone, I realized long ago, is no substitute for a well-rounded world view. However, it can not only inspire great stories, but also deepen and broaden our perspective.
After all, ideas have consequences. A valid philosophy of life must begin with an accurate understanding of human nature. Look at the horrors spawned by the ideologies of the last century, all based on noble-sounding assumptions which turned out in practice to be false. Writers, I think, have a duty to diagnose, advise, and heal while we entertain.
The unspoken component of that duty is to constantly revise and strengthen our world view. As E. O. Wilson tells us, science can give the humanities “more solidly grounded answers” to life’s mysteries. And boy, does this society need grounding. That’s why I’ve long been fascinated by science fiction.